New Internationalist

Safe from ConocoPhillips… but what about the missionaries?

At its AGM in Houston two weeks ago, ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva announced his company would stop exploring for oil in one of the most remote parts of the Peruvian Amazon, known as Lot 39, just across the border from Ecuador and its well known Yasuní initiative to ‘keep the oil in the ground’. Human rights NGO Survival International remarked that Conoco’s decision had been made following ‘global outrage’ against the company’s operations in Lot 39 because of the threats posed to two ‘uncontacted’ indigenous groups living there, while US-based Amazon Watch was quick to hail it as a ‘decision for isolated peoples’ rights’.

Boats in the Peruvian Amazon

Boats in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Greenwich Photography under a CC Licence.

I’ve just come back from the region in question. In Buena Vista, one of the two villages closest to where Conoco has been working, I was shown a house built for a Christian missionary, and several people told me the missionary, a German man named Christian, had built the house as part of his bid to search for an ‘uncontacted’ indigenous group.

‘He’s come here to find the people who live hidden further upriver,’ one woman told me. ‘Los no contactados!’ her husband chimed in, meaning literally the ‘uncontacted people’. Later that day I heard the same from one of Buena Vista’s oldest residents, a man named Modesto, who said Christian wanted to ‘look for them, to talk to them, to teach them.’

But where was the missionary? Back in Iquitos, I was told, the biggest town in Peru’s northern Amazon and possibly the biggest town in the world without road or rail access. Tracking down a missionary named Christian was no easy task anywhere, but eventually, after knocking on various church doors and inquiring around Iquitos’ ex-pat community, I found someone who knew someone who knew him and could direct me to his church. Within minutes I had found out his full name, and I was speaking to his wife down someone else’s mobile and receiving an invitation to dinner at his house: beetroot salad, a fried egg, boiled rice and agouti.

Christian was open about his plans. When I asked about his work in Buena Vista, he said, in excellent English: ‘There are petrol companies up there. There’s another tribe up there. I was looking for them… I want to give them the chance to receive the Gospel.’

He said he was due to travel upriver extremely soon. Was he intending to look for the ‘no contactados’? ‘Yes.’

Had people in Buena Vista ever spoken to him about them? He nodded, as if to say, ‘Many times’.

He mentioned how easily rumours could spread in Buena Vista and how many there had been about him, such as that he was ‘selling information to NGOs’.

Information about what? ‘About the tribe above.’

This region couldn’t be more controversial. Stung by criticism of their activities by indigenous organizations in Peru and international NGOs like Survival and Amazon Watch, Conoco and the other companies operating there, Perenco and Repsol-YPF, have played down the threat their operations pose to the ‘no contactados’ by claiming they don’t exist, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This is a particularly critical dispute since Perenco is planning to build a 207-kilometre pipeline right through this region in order to extract an estimated 350 million barrels of oil – deposits which were discovered years ago and declared commercially viable in late 2006.

When I asked Christian what the companies thought of his work, he laughed and said, ‘They don’t like it.’

Someone else who might not like it: the ‘no contactados’ themselves. In addition to the total lack of understanding and respect implicit in any missionary’s attempt to convert indigenous people to Christianity, the biggest concern is that contact will decimate the ‘no contactados’ because they don’t have immunity to outsiders’ diseases. Anyone who knows anything about the Amazon knows that, and Christian, who is also a medical doctor, should know better than most.

Right now, Christian is somewhere upriver from Iquitos. What is the Peruvian government going to do?

David Hill is a freelance journalist.

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  1. #1 gheinze 26 May 11

    Your article is interesting. Regarding the missionaries it's nothing of surprice. They are apparently always the first. Have made such an experience already 30 years ago in the amazonian dschungel of Columbia. Finding there at one of my first excursions a missionary camp (an American group, around 20 of them) at the border to the amazonian forest. They were using waterplane's to comute to Bogota but as well as to find tribes at the rivers. They than worked in teams of 2 or 3 staying for a certain time (couple of month) with the indians at their location. To study the spoken language of the native tribe/group and to develope a writing language in order to enable them to read the bible.
    I was quite shooked about but also surprised how well the missionary camp was organized. They had even refrigerators in their wooden houses as they produced their own electricity.

  2. #2 dhyan estella 26 May 11

    the church has done uncountable crimes in their history.
    its time this people wake up !!
    and leave indigenous tribes in peace !!!

  3. #3 moi 27 May 11

    To say these people had no contact is not understanding who the indigenous people were. Indigenous people did not live isolated. They lived in cities down south, and they traded and they had various complex system. No, There are no indigenous people today that live like they did because their system of doing things was brought down when 95% of them died. They're still people resisting who do not want to live like the christian man, but the indigenous system and way of doing things was brought down

  4. #4 wendy 27 May 11

    In recent decades, Christian groups have done much to alleviate poverty for marginalised groups throughout Peru, particularly in urban settings. But, Christian missionaries are just maverick loose canons throughout the Amazon region and need to be monitored closely to minimise their impacts on unsuspecting selva communities still outside their influence.

    Throughout history we have seen the devastating impacts religious groups have caused to other cultures and although
    international and local social movements are lobbying hard to preserve traditional indigenous peoples rights to retain their own knowledges and livelihoods, this is seriously undermined by powerful right wing Christian lobbyists who hold sway over weak governments in countries where the few remaining tribes live.

    These tribes are constantly under threat; international movements need to ensure their actions and messages reach a much wider mainstream audience so that Christian groups can be held to account.

    It is encouraging, (though very rare), to see that powerful extractive industry corporations can occasionally be cowed by local social movement and NGO lobbyists to recognise the impacts of their activities.

    In a world where the neo-liberal Western paradigm still rules, it is even more vital to preserve the very small corners of ancient knowledge that still exist on the planet. Peru has already squandered much of its indigenous legacy that remained intact after the first wave of religious reformists and colonial exploitation; there is a real and present danger that the little remaining will soon be lost for good.

    In the case of Peru, let's hope the new government will be more sympathetic to preserving the rights of indigenous groups than Garcia's 'Perro del Hortelano' policies, which negated all rights to be heard by those representing groups that have no voice. It would be a travesty if these remaining tribes were to be put in a position where they too, must fight for their rights to be left alone.

  5. #5 ed Gallegoes 27 May 11

    No offense, but i don't believe these people need any missionaries to preach to them. They've survived this long for a reason, in close contact with the land and their own views of the divine. They don't need your western view of God , your conversion or the possible diseases you bring with you. I hope Christian never finds them.

  6. #6 David Hill 02 Jun 11

    Moi, you're right to raise the issue of ’no contact’ and what is implied or meant by ’uncontacted.’

    In this article I intended it as a short-hand term for indigenous people who live without regular contact with outsiders, and by ’outsiders’ I meant other, non-indigenous people. The ancestors of some of these groups had contact with outsiders many, many years ago, but for different reasons, mainly because that contact experience was so appalling, retreated to remoter regions and have lived there, more or less, ever since. In other words, more ’once-contacted’ that ’never-contacted.’

    In Peru, in recent years, two of the most popular terms have been ’no contactados’ and ’aislados’ (’isolated’), used both by indigenous organizations and others (anthropologists, lawyers etc) working on this issue. Recently, though, Peru's national indigenous peoples' organization, AIDESEP, decided to use a new, different term: ’pueblos autonomos.’

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